Mark Boonshoft is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. His work focuses on colleges and academies, especially the networks forged in them, and their role in the formation of revolutionary political culture.
As an undergraduate, I found the political history of the early republic to be fascinating. As a graduate student, I find teaching the subject to be utterly frustrating. This surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. I was already interested in early American history when I got to college. Most of my students don’t share that proclivity, to say the least. Generally, they assume that the policy debates of the founding era and beyond—especially about banks, internal improvements, and federalism—are downright dry. That said, our students live in an era of rampant partisanship and government paralysis, punctuated by politicians’ ill-conceived attempts to claim the legacy of ‘the founders.’ The emergence of American party politics is pretty relevant to our students’ lives. So with many of us gearing up to get back into the classroom, I thought this would be a good time to start a discussion about teaching the history of early national party formation.
To generalize again, most students take the existence of our contemporary two-party system for granted. They see it as some sort of unchanging, normative political culture. Of course this is hardly the case. Party formation was a complicated and contingent process. During the early national period, partisanship was more fluid than it is now. People demonstrated party affiliation in a wider range of ways and parties possessed less official power. Simply getting students to imagine a different sort of party politics should open up exciting avenues of discussion.
Yet the very root of this pedagogical opportunity is also the biggest obstacle. The entrenchment of modern partisanship can make it difficult for students to talk about early American politics and think past firm partisan divisions. I first confronted this while leading a discussion section as a TA. During class, I drew this flowchart in an effort to illustrate how rapidly parties realigned between the Revolution and the Civil War.
At first, this only confused matters further. And I thought I was making things so easy by leaving out “third parties.” Ultimately, the flowchart has countervailing effects. On the one hand, party/faction names seem to help students make sense of debates about policy and law. The diagram gives students a way to organize information. On the other, its structure encourages students to continue thinking about politics as a clash between well-defined parties. The names themselves can suggest rigid distinctions between groups that were often not actually so clear. This becomes particularly apparent when we get to the 1800s-1820s, and the infighting between “Old Republican” and “National Republican” Jeffersonians. At SHEAR 2013, part of the discussion during a panel on National Republicans focused on this problem. Students also often have trouble grasping the differences between the Federalists in 1787-89 and in the 1790s. A Federalist is a Federalist they think. Why else would the name remain?
Getting students to think through seemingly arcane policy disputes is hard enough. Ask them to comprehend how those technical arguments developed within a context of shifting and unstable political coalitions and it becomes even more confusing. I’m not sure that there is a good alternative. In my experience, teaching the politics of the early republic is difficult to do. I end up either anachronistically oversimplifying party development or just confusing the hell out of everyone. Even still, I stubbornly believe that teaching the nitty-gritty political history is an important part of our job as American history teachers. In our current political climate, it is tantalizing to think about the impact we might make by simply teaching this history well.
So for selfish and intellectual reasons alike, I open this up to the blog’s readers. How do you teach early national politics and party formation, especially in an intro-level course? How do you make this sort of political history engaging and relevant?
 Every so often I come across a founders-obsessed, undergraduate history buff. While riding a campus bus, I once struck up a conversation with a student who, when he found I studied early American history, rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of “We the People” on his forearm. Apparently, he also had “don’t tread on me” tattooed somewhere on his body. After immediately thinking of Bart Simpson, I was thankful he didn’t show me.
 The new, new political history is helpful for starting these sorts of reflective conversations. I find Jeffrey Pasley’s, “The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic,” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004): 31-56, to be particularly teachable.
 Disclaimer: I absolutely do not endorse the use of this chart for any educational purpose.
 The panel was called: “What does National Republicanism Mean in 2013? Nine Lives and Seven Interpretations.”
 Though I hardly think this is the only kind of political history that is important.